Issue Date: February 28, 2011
Chemists Join Wisconsin Budget Battle
The labor rights and budget standoff gripping Wisconsin is affecting chemistry departments at public universities statewide. Many chemists and chemistry graduate students have joined the throngs of protesters at the state capitol and elsewhere in Madison.
"The crowds at our capitol are growing," says Judith N. Burstyn, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and chair of the executive committee of the faculty senate. "It's not clear at all what's going to happen."
Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker is in a dramatic standoff with Democrats in the state legislature over a budget repair bill he introduced on Feb. 11, designed to stanch a multimillion dollar shortfall in the state's budget. Democratic state senators have fled Wisconsin to block a vote on the bill; the state assembly is debating the bill.
The bill calls for government workers to pay more for their health insurance and pension plans, but the protests were sparked by the bill's provision to limit collective bargaining rights of public employee unions to wages only. Prominent Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have denounced the bill as a partisan attack on unions.
"This is not really about money. This is about power and control," says University of Wisconsin, Madison, chemistry professor Robert J. Hamers. The proposed bill affects chemistry departments in the University of Wisconsin system, he says, because its teaching assistants and some department staff are unionized, and faculty and staff are state employees.
But the bill's financial impacts can't be ignored, argues another chemistry professor, James M. Cook of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Most chemists working in Wisconsin's state university system make lower salaries than their counterparts in the private sector, and affordable benefits go hand in hand with scholarly freedom as selling points of the job, he says.
As a senior faculty member, "I'm going to be able to get through this," Cook says. But junior professors, students, and support staff will be harder hit by added contributions to benefit plans, he says.
Scholarly activity continues on Wisconsin's campuses, albeit with some disruption. The teaching assistant's union and the faculty senate at the Madison campus called for instructors who wish to attend protests to use their discretion when cancelling or rescheduling classes.
In the Madison chemistry department, notes on hallway blackboards, fliers, and word of mouth have helped organize walks to the capitol, says Brent Amberger, a chemistry teaching assistant and graduate student in professor Robert McMahon's group. "I'm 24. I've never really thought about unions and collective bargaining before," he says. "This experience has certainly opened my eyes."
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